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Artillery Row

The celebrification of children’s literature

Children’s book publishing needs to take a step away from celebrities

There is an unspoken, but usually observed, rule in publishing, and that is that one big-name writer does not usually attack another one publicly. The reasons for this are many, but on a practical level it revolves around the difficulties that marketing departments face when putting writers up for high-profile events with one another. It is that much more difficult to programme a literary festival or charity evening if two of the participants have engaged in an ugly spat with one another. While there have been, and continue to be, high-profile and often notorious fallings-out between literary authors (one thinks of VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux, or Martin Amis and Julian Barnes), it is rare that a full-frontal attack takes place for all to see.

However, the food writer Jack Monroe has not established her significant reputation by being mealy-mouthed, and so last month when she launched an attack on the best-selling children’s writer David Walliams on Twitter, she did not pull her punches. She claimed that she had come across his books via her young son and was appalled by what she called “Little Britain for kids” and “sneering classist fatshaming grim nonsense”. She then proceeded to criticise Walliams’ books for peddling outdated racist stereotypes, for containing page after page of vomiting jokes (“does he not have any new material?”) and for finding poverty somehow intrinsically amusing (“a white wealthy man using working-class women as punchlines for his tired old jokes and then spoon-feeding them to children is grim”), before saying “I don’t hate anyone as a rule, but that rule is being sorely tested by this viscerally unfunny and actually harmful bullshit”.

Walliams’ publisher HarperCollins, mindful of the possibility of Monroe’s comments gathering steam and damaging their multi-million selling brand, put out a statement defending him, couched in the usual bland PR spiel. “David Walliams’ books have a diverse readership which is reflected in their content. He writes about the real worlds of children using comedy as a way of confronting many difficult topics, from the ground-breaking The Boy in the Dress to Gangsta Granny, and which should be considered in the wider context of the overall stories”. The statement concluded that “David Walliams’ books have transformed countless non-readers into book lovers and got families reading together”. Monroe has subsequently deleted her tweets, and the moment of jeopardy for Walliams’ career seemed to pass. And yet her anger, justifiable or not, illuminated another point entirely: the celebrity-driven state of children’s book publishing today.

Last weekend, I spent an illuminating twenty minutes or so in the children’s section of a large branch of Waterstones. I was especially interested to see which books were written by figures who were probably better known as comedians, TV presenters or from other branches of the entertainment industry. There were children’s books written by once-edgy adult-oriented comedians who are now appealing to a more youthful market, such as Julian Clary, David Baddiel and Ben Miller. Some of the books were written by likeable figures who have not shown any previous aptitude for the literary sphere, such as Fearne Cotton and Dermot O’Leary. And there were a couple of simply bizarre ones. I am unsure as to why the footballer Frank Lampard has written a series of books (eighteen now, apparently) nor why the actress Isla Fisher has apparently switched career to write about a character called Marge. Yet there they all are, on the shelves before me. I considered myself lucky not to have encountered high-profile efforts by Madonna, Geri Halliwell and – of all unlikely people – Simon Cowell.

Arguably, this vogue for publishing celebrity-authored (or ghost-written) children’s literature began with Walliams in the first place. After his enormous success with Little Britain, he published his first book The Boy in The Dress in 2008, with illustrations by Roald Dahl’s great collaborator Quentin Blake. The implication of that and its 2009 follow-up Mr Stink was clear: David Walliams is the 21st century Dahl. And even as Little Britain has found itself cancelled due to its use of blackface and inappropriate transvestism, Walliams was able to shrug off any involvement with the programme that established his name and career by instead concentrating on his hugely successful children’s books. They have now sold 100 million copies, making him wealthy beyond most people’s wildest dreams. The knighthood can surely not be far away.

Yet the depressing thing is that, regardless of the merits or otherwise of Walliams’ writing, it has established a precedent for publishers and editors of children’s writing, or at least their sales and marketing departments, to play it entirely safe when it comes to commissioning new books. In doing so, they suggest that children’s books can somehow be written by any Tom, Dick and Harry (or Isla, Fearne or Konnie), as long as they are famous. The reasons may seem cynical, but also make sense. Most of the well-known figures whose books are on the shelves are brand names in and of themselves, with large social media followings, high media profiles and the ability to cross-pollinate their reputations between their work. While, of course, Dermot O’Leary is unable to plug his book series Toto the Ninja Cat while he is hosting The X-Factor, the name recognition created by his presenting role all but ensures healthy sales of his children’s-oriented fiction.

For children’s writers lower down the pecking order, the outlook is bleak

While it would be pernicious and unfair to suggest that the figures named above are in any sense washed up, one of the strange quirks about celebrity in Britain is that it contains a very long half-life once its protagonists have reached, and passed, the peak of their fame. There are countless programmes in which the once-famous are invited to regard themselves as household names once again, most notably the ritual humiliation of I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here!, and the desperate desire of the once-beloved to continue keeping themselves in the public eye has now extended into the field of children’s writing. Of course, the ghost-written celebrity autobiography or novelty book has been around for decades, but the success of Walliams has meant that an entirely new opportunity has been created in a field that, apparently, it is relatively straightforward to succeed in.

As any children’s writer, aspirant or successful, knows, this is entirely untrue. Writing books aimed at young readers is a difficult achievement at the best of times, given that they tend to have shorter attention spans and that anything they encounter has to compete for attention with the internet, streaming services and mobile phones. It has probably never been harder to get a children’s book published than it is now, and if you are neither a well-known media personality nor a bestselling writer in your own right, it is a crowded field that shows few signs of being open to new entrants, despite publishers’ showy dedication to diverse voices and BAME-focused experiences.

Many of the classic novels of the past few decades, such as Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, may well have struggled to gain traction if they had been proposed to publishers today, both because of the intrinsic difficulty in their subject matter (religious fundamentalism) and because Magorian and Pullman, fine writers though they both are, have never hosted a television talent show. And J.K. Rowling, the bestselling writer of her, or anyone else’s generation, would certainly never have got any kind of break if she had dared to espouse her controversial and heretical opinions.

This has meant that, for children’s writers lower down the pecking order, the outlook is bleak. As one aspirant novelist put it to me, “Publishers need to be braver. Their sales and marketing departments need to be bolder in what they publish and rely less on the famous names. My experience is that it’s extremely hard to cut through, especially with fewer books being published, and there are many extremely talented writers for children who will get nowhere and be crowded out of the market, because people have the idea that former TV presenters and footballers’ names – which in many cases will mean absolutely nothing to the children reading the books – will sell. So, where that leaves the rest of us, I don’t know”.

The argument has traditionally been that celebrity publishing is a necessary evil, providing revenue that has subsidised less well-known but more talented writers’ endeavours. Yet as the once-lucrative autobiography market seems to have subsided, it is more and more likely that children’s writing will become the major means of the famous choosing to express themselves. While it is entirely possible that this will lead to some excellent books and the emergence of some hugely talented figures (few would argue that Charlie Higson, for instance, is not a fine writer), there is also the likelihood that we are going to be faced with years, possibly even decades, of mediocrity being foisted upon our children, because someone was once famous in 2005 and they have a good and tenacious agent. This is a shame for them, a shame for children’s publishing as an industry and a shame for the future of celebrity.

While Monroe’s intemperate attack on Walliams has to be viewed as a righteous expression of personal anger, rather than an expression of dissatisfaction with the whole industry, there will be many more parents out there in years to come, shaking their heads at the slop that is prominently displayed on the bookshelves, and wondering what revolution is needed for children’s publishing to take risks. Publishers need to take a risk and allow the big names of the future to be brilliant writers once again. These may be the same figures as has-been B-listers chasing an easy book deal from the comfort of their berth at the Groucho Club, but somehow, I doubt it.

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